Eight employes of Virginia's Western State Hospital who earlier this year raised charges of patient abuse and mismanagement at the mental facility have been suspended without pay for declining to testify before a state-appointed committee investigating their complaints.
The employes -- six social workers, the hospital's social services director and quality assurance director -- were given 10-day administrative suspensions this week while state officials decide whether they acted improperly by refusing to speak under oath at the hearings in Staunton.
The employes, who gave only their names and job titles in response to questions from the committee, said the proceedings were designed to prevent their complaints about the hospital from being heard.
Several of the suspended workers were quoted extensively in a recent Washington Post series that described the alleged abuses and prompted a state legislative committee to schedule hearings of its own into the matter.
In the suspension notices, ordered by Western State Director William J. Burns, the employes were told: "Your activities over the past several months will be reviewed relative to the appearance of a concerted effort on your part to interfere with the day-to-day operation of Western State Hospital."
Burns expressed dismay yesterday that the workers had declined to answer questions from the committee, which is scheduled to issue its report next week. "At this point in time, I would have serious reservations about the motives of these people who bring up these allegations in a very dramatic way and then refuse to testify," he said.
"I's looking for resolution at this point," Burns said. "The charges are serious. A great deal of time has gone into this. This was the time to bring the information forth."
The employes, however, said they were protesting what they see as efforts to stifle their criticisms of hsopital management. "We weren't going to acknowledge this committee as a credible group," said social services director Brendan Buschi, who is appealing a five-day suspension he received shortly after the newspaper articles appeared.
Buschi said the eight staff members, among 40 called to testify, were prevented from addressing the concerns they originally had raised. After supplying the committee with more than 350 pages of documents, he said, employes were restricted to speaking about specific issues, many unrelated to their complaints.
The whole thing was a joke," Buschi said. "We couldn't testify before this committee.''
Specifically, the employes had accused the state-run mental hospital of numerous abuses, including exposing patients to physical assaults, holding more than 200 patients without their consent and improper use of drugs. such complaints, they alleged, had routinely been ignored or resulted in official harrassment.
The committee, consisting of local citizens appointed by the state mental health commissioner, usually considers individual cases at the hospital. Following a request from the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, however, the state Human Rights Committee asked the local group to hear the complaints.
The state legislature's Joint Mental Health Oversight subcommittee has scheduled hearings into the complaints for August. State Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), who sits on the committee, said he was perplexed yesterday.
"We really don't know what's going on down there," he said. "Obviously, that's going to raise some questions. Sooner or later we're going to have to ask the administration to respond."